US Politics vs. Middle East Reality

James Zogby’s Column

After President George W. Bush proclaimed Ariel Sharon a “man of peace” and praised his withdrawal from the West Bank, I was inundated by questions from U.S. reporters.  Many were indignant, others were just confused.  “What”, they asked, “was he doing?”

On April 4, Bush, despite his extra criticism of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, appeared to be fair in calling for an “immediate” Israeli withdrawal.  He was, he said, dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell with messages for both Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat.  And, the President concluded, “I expect results.” 

In fact, Powell’s trip ended without results.  Israel’s marauding army continues to lay waste to areas of the West Bank.  War crimes have been committed and the brutal siege of several cities and towns remains in place.

Despite this obvious failure, the President inexplicably proclaimed victory, thanking Sharon for his cooperation, while focusing his criticism on President Arafat.  All over the world, and here in the U.S., people were baffled at the all too obvious disconnect between reality and Bush’s observations.

What happened?  Bush blinked.  In the face of political pressure coming from within his own party, the President backed away from his April 4th insistence on an “immediate Israeli withdrawal”.  It was not the insubstantial Jewish-led pro-Israel rally that pressured Bush, it was the substantial criticism he was receiving from his neo-conservative and religious right wing Republican supporters.

In fact, it might be said that the position of the White House began to turn after Republican senators invited former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Senate.  Netanyahu used the opportunity to implicitly criticize the Powell mission.  Imagine, U.S. senators inviting a foreign personality to undercut their own president and secretary of state, who was at that very moment in the midst of his mission to the Middle East. 

This pressure was amplified in television and newspaper commentaries and in letters from senators to the President.  Slowly, the White House began to alter its language and course.  “Suicide bombers” became “homicide bombers” and “immediate withdrawal” became “progress in the days to come.”

But this rather transparent effort to call black white and white black will not fare well.  First and foremost because U.S. reporters, especially those who accompanied the Secretary of State and those who have been covering the Israeli assault from the region, know what really occurred and they continue to ask tough questions.

The U.S. public is also apparently not impressed.  Although the President still retains high overall ratings, he receives a 20% lower score for his handling of the Middle East conflict.  And while public sympathy, shaped by biased media coverage and negative stereotypes, remains with Israel, on policy issues the public is demanding balance.  In fact, almost 75-80% of the public says that they want a U.S. policy that applies pressure evenly and does not favor either side. 

In this context, it is worth noting an incident at last week’s State Democratic Convention in Florida.  Senator Joseph Lieberman, attempting to court favor with the crowd, exhorted the President to stand more firmly with Sharon and Israel.  Press reports noted that Lieberman’s comments were met with silence.

It is also important to note that the internal struggle within the Administration will not end.  The State Department will continue to push for a more realistic approach to diplomacy.  Just last week, after the President’s comments, we conducted a briefing at the State Department based on our recent poll of Arab opinion toward U.S.- Middle East policy.  It is clear that whatever political pressure can do to alter policy, it can’t alter reality-and U.S. diplomats know that.  Especially in the next few weeks when the destruction and horrors of Jenin and other sites in the West Bank become clearer and when international reaction grows, the U.S. will be forced to deal with the reality of Israel’s brutal aggression.  U.S. diplomats know this and they will continue to press the White House on these matters.

It is also very clear that not only Arabs are upset with the lack of balance in U.S. policy.  A recent Pew Research poll of five European countries establishes that in France, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy public opinion is, by a significant margin, opposed to U.S. policy.  This is reflected in growing frustration in the European Union and the United Nations and threats that these bodies may apply their own pressure on the U.S.

Despite all of this, pro-Israel efforts, from the traditional lobby and its right wing allies, continue.  Operating according to the principle that a good offense in the best defense, the pro-Israel groups have been hard at work, not only to shore up support in Congress, but they have moved their campaign into the other areas as well.  Individual state legislatures are now being pressed to pass pro-Sharon, pro-Israel resolutions.  There is also an intense campaign to attack media outlets accusing them of being anti-Israel.

Can these efforts succeed?  While realities in the world and Arab pressures will serve as a check against the pressures of domestic politics, if Arabs do not respond in an aggressive U.S. campaign of their own, real damage can be done.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.